Every evening at dusk, a colorful glow gently settles over one of Omaha’s busiest intersections in front of Children’s Hospital & Medical Center. Passers-by can’t help but look up a small hill to the source of the light: the new Specialty Pediatric Center on the Children’s campus. What they discover is an artistic treat and engineering feat named “Imagine.”

A glass-enclosed stairwell forms the focal point on one side of the five-story building. Inside the stairwell, a 76-foot-tall stainless steel spire rises to the top of the enclosure. Twirled around the spire are 19 umbrellas of varying sizes and designs in vibrant colors. At night the stairwell comes alive with 3,500 LED lights embedded in the spire and the umbrellas, all programmed for different shows that change hourly.

What many call an amazing sight was born from a collaboration of architects, an artist, and a hospital.

“We were always after a beacon for that corner,” explains Bob Holm, senior associate with HDR, the company that designed the new center. But the architects needed a theme for the light show. “I knew Matt was the guy who could bring it to life.”

Holm had taken a keen interest in the work of sculptor Matthew Placzek when he saw how the artist had integrated a computer-controlled light show with a series of sculptures in front of an Omaha arena. The Children’s project, however, was on a grander scale.

“They wanted something spectacular,” the sculptor recalls. “I came up with a couple of ideas, but [HDR and Children’s] loved the umbrellas, so I drew up the project.”

For Placzek, a father of three, the umbrellas represent the nurturing, caring, and safety of Children’s. 

“I hoped the young patients and their families, who are probably very worried and emotional, would experience just a few moments of joy,” he reflects. But first he had to figure out how to fit “Imagine” into a very tight space.

Because the stairwell is only 12 feet in diameter, Placzek realized he would have to design a self-supporting spire.  Compounding the problem, the only entrance to the staircase was a seven-foot-wide door, the artist recalls with a wry smile. “So we knew it would have to be assembled in pieces on the inside,” he says.

By “we,” Placzek refers to the structural engineers he hired as part of his creative team for the most important component of the project. They created a 3-D computer model of the piece and, he says, knew “within one-sixteenth of an inch where everything was going to go.”

The spire weighed in at 8,000 pounds. Construction crews brought 10-foot sections into the tower at a time, stacked them, and welded each section. Once the spire was in place, it was time to attach the umbrellas. Again, engineers met the challenge.

“The umbrellas are four, six, and seven feet in diameter with a 150-pound aluminum frame on the inside,” Placzek explains. “They have a special arm, which was fitted and tightened into the spire with a bolt.”

Electric wires, hidden inside the umbrella arms and spire, link the sculpture to a state-of-the-art LED lighting system. It features a color palette that contains 16 million different colors and color combinations to light up the night sky—a beacon, indeed.

The installation took a little more than three weeks. But “Imagine” still wasn’t done.

While a highly skilled team of subcontractors put the finishing touches on Placzek’s individually sculpted umbrellas, the artist went back to his Omaha studio to work on the other half of the project—the part that becomes evident when dawn breaks and the light show evaporates to its home behind the glass.

On the lawn near the street corner, several yards downhill from the stairwell, stand five bronze statues of children holding, in carefree poses, umbrellas that also light up at night. Bright eyes and wide smiles shine on their little faces as if inviting commuters to join in their whimsy. Built on an eight-foot scale and weighing more than 800 pounds apiece, the figures, although separated physically from the stair tower, belong to it aesthetically.

“The whole idea is that this is part of the [bronze] children’s imagination, playing with these umbrellas and just imagining them floating away,” says their creator. “That’s what the umbrellas are doing—floating up the staircase.”

Reaction to the unveiling of “Imagine” a year ago was swift and continues unabated.

“We continually get comments from young patients, their families, and members of the community about how beautiful it is,” says Roger Lewis, executive director of the Children’s Hospital and Medical Center Foundation. “Neighbors are especially pleased that it has been added to the Omaha landscape.”

Funding for “Imagine” was raised by the foundation with the help of a major benefactor and other private donors.

“It was never part of a capital campaign,” states Lewis. “We viewed it as a public art project and Children’s is the host.”

Nothing puts the value of the project into perspective better than a story related by one of the metal fabricators in Iowa who helped bring life to “Imagine.”

“I know a family in Des Moines whose young son has had several heart operations at Children’s and he absolutely hated going there for treatment,” says Tom Carder of Quality Manufacturing. “He’d have anxiety, scream, and cry. But once the sculptures went up and he saw the lights, he turned to his dad and said, ‘I can’t wait to come back here and see them again.’”

Matthew Placzek may have wanted to provide “just a few moments of joy.” But not even he could imagine the impact those moments would have. HCD


Carol Crissey Nigrelli is a former television news anchor now living in Omaha. For more on Matthew Placzek’s work, visit matthewplaczek.com or childrensomaha.org.